Craig Gillespie’s Cruella explores the backstory of Cruella DeVille, the would-be dalmatian poacher who debuted in animated form in 1961’s 101 Dalmatians and was played by Glenn Close in its 1996 live-action remake. The punningly named fashion designer goes from colorful arch villain to colorfully arch antihero in Gillespie’s follow-up to I, Tonya, with Emma Stone stepping into the eponymous role. It’s a film that exists seemingly less because anybody has been asking for such a take on the character and more because Cruella is another intellectual property that can easily be poured into the evil-witch-turned-misunderstood-protagonist mold recently cast by Disney’s Maleficent movies.
But Cruella’s more obvious precedent is Wicked. Like Gregory Maguire’s novelistic riff on Wizard of Oz and its Broadway adaptation, Gillespie’s film takes a monstrous character best known for her distaste for pets and other signs of bourgeois pleasantness and turns her into an animal lover shaped by a conflict with her own inhuman antagonist. The result is that Cruella, an evil-hag stereotype that beckoned camp appropriation, becomes just another nice girl—that is, relative to her nemesis, Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), the new ur-maven of fashion cruelty in this movie universe. You may wonder how deep this rabbit hole could go—whether in 20 years we’ll get a prequel about the Baroness’s own formative bête noire. Will it turn out to be haughty, maniacal villainesses all the way down?
Cruella’s first act establishes the backstory’s backstory: An older Cruella’s voiceover accompanies the audience through a whiz-bang overview of her troubled childhood, in which her aggressive defiance of bullies both individual and institutional gets her expelled from a British private school. It’s at the school where the obstreperous young Cruella, played in these scenes by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland, befriends Anita Darling (Florisa Kamara), who, implicitly because the setting is ’60s Britain and she’s one of the few black students at the small-town school, is able to sympathize with the outcast Cruella. To the extent that Anita’s presence in the film turns out to be more than an Easter egg for those who recognize her name as belonging to the future co-owner of a certain 101 pups, it’s simply so the character can function to align Cruella’s ostracization with the plight of the marginalized.
After the magic of montage has skipped us forward a decade (much of the film plays out as a montage of scenes set to a selection of recognizable hits, mostly from the ’70s), we find Cruella living by her wits as a scrappy young orphan in London. In the intervening years she’s found two sidekicks to functionally replace Anita (now played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste), fellow orphans-slash-con-artists Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry). Now going exclusively by her birth name, Estella, and covering her naturally chiaroscuro coif with an auburn wig that looks an awful lot like the way Emma Stone usually wears her hair, the dognapper-in-the-making uses grift and pluck to get herself a position designing clothes at the Baroness’s firm. There, a discovery about a secret in the aristocratic designer’s past inspires Estella to assume a dual identity, letting her alter-ego take over in a series of fashion-cum-vandalism stunts that chip away at the Baroness’s fashion empire and her self-assurance.
Cruella is nothing if not a film of our present moment, given how the hero’s flirtation with anarchy is emphasized by the flagrantly stylized depiction of her exploits. If the ’70s setting and Cruella’s initially grimy digs and all-consuming obsession with the Baroness recall Todd Phillips’s Joker, Stone’s flip, diaristic voiceover (not to mention her chalk-white visage) brings to mind Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey. Like Margot Robbie in the latter film, Stone relishes her role, playing Cruella as if she were headlining a burlesque show, and affecting a London-ish accent that’s as artificial as a polyester boa. “We hadn’t stahhted yet, dahhling,” she facetiously drawls during an unlikely hand-to-hand confrontation with the Baroness’s goon squad.
Stone’s performance can be fun to watch, but even her depiction of Cruella’s increasing psychosis and imperiousness toward Horace and Jasper isn’t enough to remove the impression that Disney is de-toothing a character whose originating motivation was the desire to murder and skin somebody else’s pets. So eager to please us with sumptuous costumes and rhythmic montage, and to refresh its trademarked character by applying the same melodramatic narrative logic as countless recent properties, Cruella’s outward liveliness can’t mask the inner inertia it has as just another lifeless product assembled in a factory.